How to handle four common health problems in older dogs

With the help of Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner, we get the facts about some widespread conditions in ageing dogs: arthritis, sight and hearing loss, and dementia.

There’s lots to enjoy about a relationship with a senior dog. As they age, they’re still their loving selves, but are generally calmer and happy to rest when you do. They’re familiar with the habits of the household, too, so aren’t easily fazed. But older dogs may also be subject to age-related health conditions and behaviour changes – so do keep an eye on them, and get them checked out by a vet if you’re worried about anything. Here, we round up some common health problems in older dogs that may not be immediately obvious – and reveal what you can do to help.

Dogs and arthritis

Arthritis can occur in all ageing dogs. It happens when the cartilage between the bones becomes damaged. This can occur through wear and tear, and can affect the spine, front or back legs, or paws. As the cartilage disintegrates, the bones rub against each other, causing pain, and the joints may swell. Larger breeds are more prone to the condition, including Labradors, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Rottweilers.

Know the signs:

A dog with arthritis is less likely to leap up at the prospect of walkies. They’ll be less active and agile, and may struggle to get up after a lie-down. A limp may signal the onset of canine arthritis, as can difficulty climbing stairs, or stiffness after either activity or resting. Some dogs will lick the skin over their painful joints. Touching them where it hurts rarely prompts a yelp or snap, and it is not uncommon for owners to underestimate the degree of discomfort their dog is in when it has arthritis.

What to do:

Arthritis cannot be cured, but it can be treated, usually with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication and supplements that support the production of cartilage. Your vet may also recommend weight-loss and complementary treatments, such as physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.

There are ways to make your home more comfortable for an arthritic dog. And despite the discomfort of moving about, lack of exercise will lead to weight gain and make their joint pain worse. It’s vital, therefore, to keep walking your dog. Little and often is best: a half-hour burst, two to three times a day. Do this consistently, rather than miss a day and do more the next, as that could leave your pooch in more pain.

Sight loss in dogs

Bright, clear eyes are a positive sign of health in a dog. But as they age, gradual or sudden sight loss is a real possibility. While this can be hard to witness, partially sighted or blind dogs can be remarkably adept at navigating around furniture and sniffing their way to food. Like humans, the most common conditions affecting senior dogs are cataracts (opacity of the lens) and glaucoma (increased pressure inside the eyeball). High blood pressure and diabetes can impact the eyes. All of these conditions need the vet’s attention.

Know the signs:

Eyes with a milky, cloudy or blue-grey tinge can indicate diabetes or cataracts in senior dogs. Glaucoma can be harder to notice, and the main signs are redness of the eyes and pain. Eye problems can also cause your dog to move more hesitantly, become reluctant to go out for nightly toileting or seem disorientated. Squinting, keeping their head lowered, bloodshot eyes and unevenly dilated pupils also need checking out.

What to do:

Cataracts won’t cause your dog discomfort, so surgery may not be required if they’re coping pretty well. However, glaucoma is painful and will need to be treated with medication. With any eye problem, it’s important to consult your vet as soon as possible. The earlier an issue is dealt with, the better the likely outcome.

Deafness in dogs

Has your pooch started ignoring not only your commands, but also your greetings? Temporary hearing loss in dogs may be caused by ear infections or a build-up of wax and other debris, and is often treatable. But dogs may also develop more permanent deafness as they age due to degeneration of the hearing apparatus inside the ear, or due to conditions such as brain disease.

Know the signs:

A lack of response to everyday sounds and noisy toys, or sleeping through loud noises, can indicate hearing loss. Your dog may also be startled when they’re touched from behind, beyond their field of vision. And they may also display disorientation and balance issues.

What to do:

Book a check-up with your vet to get your dog assessed. While it is not possible to tell if your dog is deaf without using specialist equipment, the vet will be able to check if there is a build-up of wax and debris in the ear canal. There are many ways to help a dog that is going deaf, such as teaching them hand signals and using a vibrating collar to attract their attention. It’s wise to keep deaf dogs in the house, in a secure garden or on a lead, especially near traffic. Let them off the lead in the park, but make sure you’ve got a working recall system in place. For example, you could use hand signals or an electronic rumble (vibration) collar for distance communication.

Be mindful of how you approach your sleeping canine: try stamping your feet to send a vibration their way. Take extra care, too, to ensure young children are considerate around your pooch.

Dementia in dogs

Older dogs can lose mental function and memory capacity as they age. Sometimes called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), dog dementia is akin to Alzheimer’s in humans. It can start as early as eight years old in dogs, although onset is usually around age 11. The causes of CDS are not fully understood, but relate to a build-up of certain proteins in the brain, which interfere with brain function.

Know the signs:

Symptoms of dementia in dogs include becoming listless, confused, noisy and reacting out of character. Pacing, walking in circles, toilet accidents inside the house and being grumpy or frightened are indicators. Your dog may no longer respond to commands nor, sadly, recognise you.

What to do:

There is no cure, but medication, supplements or dietary adjustments can slow the impact of CDS, and your vet may recommend an MRI scan. Beyond that, you can support your dog by enhancing their quality of life as much as possible. Keep them stimulated with toys and puzzles, and go for walks in places that are familiar. Maintain a regular feeding time and ensure your home provides a calm environment at night.

Do you have any top tips on keeping senior dogs happy and healthy? Share them on social media using the tag #PethoodStories.

Back to top